Vigilante, volunteer, terrorist: how the US media covers Kyle Rittenhouse

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There is perhaps no greater example of the polarization of American media than the coverage of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who allegedly shot and killed two protesters and injured another at Kenosha this week.

On one side of the divide, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson defended Rittenhouse on Wednesday, due to the violence and property damage in Kenosha. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” asked Carlson.

Ridiculing Carlson’s statement on Thursday, the Daily Show host Trevor Noah replied: “No one drives to a city with guns because they love someone else’s business so much.” He continued: “They do it because they are hoping to shoot someone. That’s the only reason people like him join these gangs in the first place – yes, I said it, a gang – because this is not the battle of Yorktown, it’s a bunch of dudes threatening people with guns.”

Rittenhouse has now been charged with first-degree intentional homicide, but it hasn’t stopped some pundits from calling for him to become president. How Rittenhouse is portrayed now will be telling – not least because Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man who was shot by police in Kenosha days before Rittenhouse’s arrest, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, has also not yet stood trial – but has already been labeled a criminal in the media.

In the words of one Chicago journalist: “[This is] a rare moment in news media where we get to watch this dichotomy in real time … To see to whom news media gives the most compassion and consideration in telling their stories.”

Some will say it is too early to use words like “terrorism”, to describe the events before evidence has been examined. Others will point out the term is not always applied consistently: both the media and the FBI are quick to label people of color who perpetrate violent extremism as “terrorists”. Donald Trump even referred to people protesting against police violence as such this year, but decided to refer to armed white vigilantes patrolling the Michigan capitol as “very good people” .

Here is how the US media coverage has described Rittenhouse so far.

‘A volunteer’
On Thursday, the tabloid the New York Post described how Rittenhouse was spotted cleaning up graffiti in Kenosha hours before his arrest. The article displays a photograph of Rittenhouse scrubbing walls in Wisconsin with other high-schoolers volunteering next to the Kenosha county courthouse.

‘A vigilante’
How quickly someone should be labelled a terrorist is a topic of huge debate – but one thing that Muslim extremists are rarely, if ever called in US media, is a vigilante.

But many outlets, including the Guardian, have referred to Rittenhouse as a vigilante – a word usually used to describe an unauthorized person who takes it upon themselves to protect their community in the absence of legal authorities doing so. Rittenhouse, who was spotted in the front row of a Trump rally, has been described in the Intercept as a “conservative vigilante”. In a piece profiling Anthony Huber, one of the protesters allegedly killed by Rittenhouse, the New York Post calls Rittenhouse a gun-toting vigilante.

An ‘avid supporter of the police’
The tools used to radicalize terrorists – such as social media, propaganda and trainings frequently come under scrutiny following an extremist or violent attack.

In Rittenhouse’s case, much of the press, including the Guardian, has described him as being an “avid supporter of the police” who was “interested in law enforcement”.

One Washington Post article points to Rittenhouse’s upbringing in a Chicago suburb, shadowing law enforcement and filled his social media with Blue Lives Matter posts, and how he was once a police cadet who intended to join the Marine Corps.

‘Maintaining peace’
It’s hard to find an article referencing Rittenhouse’s alleged actions on the rightwing news outlet Fox News. Coverage of the shooting was given equal coverage on its website to a protester who set fire to a police precinct and a piece mocking CNN coverage of the unrest in Kenosha.

But one of the few pieces on Fox’s frontpage about Rittenhouse is embedded with an interview between Tucker Carlson and a Daily Caller journalist who interviewed Rittenhouse before the alleged shootings took place.

In the video, the journalist refers to how Rittenhouse was trying to “maintain peace” in the absence of police, protecting a business that had been burned and how he was allegedly chased and shouted at during the protests.

‘A terrorist’
Domestic terrorism is defined by the FBI as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

Publications have tended not to call Rittenhouse a terrorist (Esquire did call his alleged attack “an act of what could only be called terrorist tourism”) but on Wednesday Representative Ayanna Presley did. She described Rittenhouse as a “domestic terrorist [who] drove across state lines, armed with an AR-15.”